Designers agree that in small garden design, every part must earn its keep, from paving and planters to perimeter treatments and the planting itself. But when they’re planned well from the start, these elements can make a garden sing, no matter how restricted its parameters.
Simplicity, Cohesion, Balance and Scale
Before you begin, think about what you’d like from the garden and how you want to feel when you’re in it. Then, as you plan the garden, consider four key principles for small garden design, explains Humaira Ikram, designer and course leader at the KLC School of Garden Design. “Simplicity is the first thing. Always step back and ask: ‘Is it simple enough? Have I added too many ideas?’” It is tempting to fill smaller spaces with many different elements but this is one place where less really is more.
“Next think about unity and harmony,” she continues. “Does it all work together?” This doesn’t mean everything must match but there should be cohesion, even if the cohesion is based on eclecticism. “Balance is so important. Think about the balance between hard and soft landscaping, the front and back gardens, the sides, the beds and the lawn,” Humaira adds. If it’s unbalanced, you’ll know by how it feels. For example, a large lawn surrounded by slim beds diminishes planting possibilities.
Scale and proportion are next on Humaira’s list. “It’s really crucial to get these right. You don’t want a mean terrace next to a house – it will look and feel wrong. There is no hard and fast rule about this and these things come with time if you look at them. You will know when a space is right because it will feel right,” she confirms.
“I always try to avoid symmetry when I’m working on a small garden design because I feel it is really obvious: when you turn left, you’ll see the same thing as when you turn right. It does work in a large landscape, like a French or Italian garden, but it makes small gardens feel even smaller,” explains Stefano Marinaz, designer behind Stefano Marinaz Landscape Architecture.
For a good flow between indoors and out, especially where ground-floor and basement extensions are concerned, Stefano suggests taking the interior paving theme outside. Best practice is to start laying paving from the threshold, to avoid design interruptions. “By using the same language, the space feels bigger; it is a continuation rather than an abrupt cut,” he notes.
It is popular in contemporary gardens to use slabs of around 1m by 1m. This isn’t always ideal, however, since the eye can easily and subconsciously count the rows of paving when slabs are this size. “That’s why it’s important to use big pavers inside and out,” he says. Small pavers are more complex to gauge and so will mask the small size of the garden. In small spaces, they are also easier to tilt slightly to direct run-off away from the house. Try mixing up the size of the pavers, too: Stefano has sometimes used granite planks in two sizes: 900mm by 200mm as well as 600mm by 200mm. “Mix them together so your eye won’t count the tiles,” he advises.
Plan paving around where you would like to walk, eat or sit. “Where you want people to stop, have a wider set of paving or lay paving on the horizontal. Where you want to move people on, lay paving on the vertical,” Humaira says.
Crucially, be aware of local planning regulations. These can vary from city to city and even borough to borough. Key among these is the right to light, which can have a big effect on small garden design. If a tree blocks incoming light, it can be removed. Similarly, keep in mind the total maximum permissible height of a boundary wall, which is commonly 1.9m. “Boundaries really are key,” says Humaira. “If you get the boundaries wrong, you can always see them. Some people like to keep their fences painted and everything in the same tone but they don’t actually need to be special.”
Trellises are an attractive way to raise wall height. “In London, horizontal slats are popular but I’m much more interested in what will grow on a trellis to provide a sense of enclosure in the city,” Stefano says. Opting for an evergreen such as popular Trachelospermum jasminoides or a clematis will mean it is clothed year-round. By contrast, a rose growing against a trellis near a busy road for example will offer screening for only part of the year.
Before you add a trellis, be clear about whose wall it is. Inadvertent damage to a neighbour’s wall could leave you with a hefty bill. On this, Stefano suggests looking at the property deeds to rule out questions of ownership. “The majority of the time it’s just a matter of talking to your neighbours – but they do have the right to ask you to fix the wall.”
One way to get around height restrictions is to use pleached deciduous trees. “A pleached hornbeam is ideal,” notes Humaira, although she cautions against using evergreens, such as yew, which count in planning regulations. Stefano agrees. “This is why there are so many pleached hornbeams in London. You can have instant screening up to 3.5m.” Pergolas generally have a height allowance of 2.5m.
Containers and Colour
Keep the bigger picture in mind when you’re adding a finishing touch. “In every garden we like to repeat some details across different elements in the garden,” says Stefano. The timber of a table might echo a timber fence, or be repeated in containers elsewhere, for good cohesion. “Your eye unconsciously sees it. In a small space it’s important to use different materials but to make sure there are elements with a similar texture and colour elsewhere.”
For a smooth transition between spaces, subtlety is key. It is easiest to achieve this with natural materials that will weather over time, so look to terracotta, limestone, granite and bronze for example. Corten steel is popular and good for raised beds. Shiny stainless steel can be too attention-seeking and too demanding on the eye, says Stefano.
You can double up on containers, too. The right vessel can become a fire pit, a water feature or even a drinks table with a board placed on top. With the details in place, add a single striking feature to weight the design and act as a focal point. This could be sculpture, a water feature or even a specimen plant.
More important than colour is putting the right plant in the right place. Following this maxim will go a long way towards making planting and colour cohesive. A shade-loving plant will naturally have broad, deep green leaves; sun-loving plants will have smaller, often grey leaves. “A tree fern next to an olive tree looks wrong,” says Stefano, “because you would never find them growing together naturally.”
Do look at repeating colours however. “Colour makes me really happy and with gardens you can do what you want,” says Humaira. “My front garden has big, blowsy tree peonies in it. If you want colour and it makes you happy, you should have it.” Keep in mind pollinators though, focusing on plants with single flowers and scent.